I can’t really remember the precise origins of this piece about the production history of early French and Saunders vehicle Girls On Top, other than that a good deal of it was derived from notes I had made for an entirely different project about The Comic Strip Presents… that never actually ended up going anywhere; however, credit where credit is due and I really should give a hat-tip to my old mucker Jonathan Sloman, who stumbled across some crucial information about the making of the pilot and generously allowed me to use it in this.
As a fairly technical/historical piece which originally appeared on the television review site Off The Telly, this never appeared in any of my books (although I appear to have briefly considered it for Not On Your Telly) and doesn’t really have very much to ‘say’ as such, but I would very much like to say something right now. As well as having loved Tracey Ullman since Three Of A Kind and You Broke My Heart In Seventeen Places, I was a huge fan of Dawn and Jen from very early on – probably more so than I was of Rik and Ade, if I’m being honest about it – and have enormously fond memories of them turning up here, there and everywhere before they landed their own BBC2 sketch show, notably the edition of Saturday Live where they ran around the cameras and production gallery with clipboards and headsets and although it was all doubtless carefully planned and scripted, in its context felt like one of those moments where it really did feel as though television had lost control of itself and anything might happen. Or indeed turning up singing that “we gave it some trombone, me boys” song on shows where they really probably shouldn’t have. Girls On Top has its problems but I loved it at the time and it annoys me that it’s now variously disregarded as a footnote, an irrelevancy, a rip-off of The Young Ones ‘for girls’ or not ‘proper’ Alternative Comedy. An all too rare ‘anarchic’ comedy with an all-female cast – and what’s more the first programme starring any of the Alternative Comedy crowd to go out in a pre-watershed slot (yet with more post-watershed gags than many of its more celebrated contemporaries) – it may well not be the finest comedy series ever made, but it was so much more than any of these dismissals might suggest. Any observations that this disingenuous sniffiness is all ultimately due to it featuring an all-female cast are for others to make, obviously.
As strange as it may appear from this distance, television was initially very nervous of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Of the original rising stars of the alternative comedy scene, they were the last to make their name in the medium by some distance. While this has often been attributed to the simple fact they were the dominant female presence in the movement – their comedy presumably unable to totally counteract the sexism it so frequently railed against – the reality is it was far more a result of the sheer strength of their humour. Much of French and Saunders’ early act was deliberately challenging and taboo-breaking, and while they made guest appearances in such shows as Friday Night And Saturday Morning and Whatever You Want, the first programme to capture them in full unrestrained flow – an edition of Channel 4’s stand-up anthology series The Entertainers (the name chosen as a deliberate counterpoint to ITV’s decidedly more ‘traditional’ The Comedians) – was bumped back from its usual 8:30pm slot to close to midnight. They were, of course, well known for their participation in the likes of The Young Ones, not to mention impressive turns as writers and performers on The Comic Strip Presents …, but as the middle of the eighties approached they had still yet to secure a headlining series of their own; and this was not for want of trying.
Early in 1982, French and Saunders had met Ruby Wax, a vivacious American actress who had been living and working in the UK since the mid-seventies, and was then contributing material to long forgotten Channel 4 chat show spoof For 4 Tonight. Finding that they had much in common, the three began to work on an idea for a prospective television vehicle based around their respective stage personas. It was obvious from the outset that the best way to get three such obnoxious and self-centred characters together was to have them forced by circumstance and desperation to share a flat, with none of them possessing the means, the motivation or indeed the intellect to get out and move somewhere better.
After initial writing meetings and discussions about possible storylines, they felt they needed a fourth lead character for balance, and French’s husband-to-be Lenny Henry suggested Tracey Ullman, whom he had recently worked with on three series of the vaguely ‘alternative’ BBC sketch show Three Of A Kind. Although barely into her twenties, Ullman had already enjoyed a dramatic rise to fame, initially drawing acclaim as a straightforward comic actress before demonstrating her versatility to a far wider audience with Three Of A Kind and its somewhat more variable stablemate A Kick Up the Eighties. In tandem with these projects, she had enjoyed considerable success as a pop singer, scoring hits with a number of sixties-tinged songs given a slight comic twist and memorably overtly comic videoes. In addition to her remarkable skills as a performer, Ullman brought an all-important bankable ‘name’ to the project, and it may well have been her involvement that ultimately secured a surprisingly high profile slot for what was a mildly ‘dangerous’ effort from a group of still largely unknown performers.
ITV’s midlands franchise holder Central were sufficiently impressed by the resultant pitch to commission a pilot, which was made over the summer of 1983 under the title Four F’s to Share. While nothing of this pilot ever seems to have surfaced – it was later extensively rewritten and almost completely reshot as the first series opener Four-Play – it was clearly strong enough for Central to commission a series of thirteen episodes to go into production the following year. However, the projected recording dates in April 1984 fell victim to by industrial action, and despite some talk of an autumn remount it eventually transpired no convenient dates would be available until the New Year. According to some sources, Wax and Ullman used this unexpected break in production to collaborate on scripts for a series of standalone comic playlets, which ultimately came to nothing.
When the team finally returned to the studios in January 1985, so long had elapsed since the recording of the original pilot it was decided simply to remount production, with the first episode effectively acting as a ‘new’ pilot. It is likely the characters, performances and entire concept had already been sharpened considerably during this eighteen-month delay, but the new studio dates also brought with them a vital change on the production side. Whereas the original pilot had been handled by a team more used to working on Central’s traditional sitcoms, Paul Jackson, a young producer with a strong understanding of alternative comedy, and who had worked with the main performers in various permutations as far back as 1980, was assigned to take over the project. Now renamed Girls On Top, the new sitcom was finally ready to go before the cameras.
Wax’s loud, attention-demanding stage persona was streamlined for Girls On Top into Shelley Dupont, a brash drama student with plenty of ego but precious little discernible talent. French became Amanda Ripley, a humourless diehard left-wing feminist whose ideology was decidedly at odds with her rarely-satiated hunger for men, while Saunders became Amanda’s dozy, lethargic childhood friend Jennifer Marsh, a girl without a malicious thought – or possibly a thought of any kind – in her head. Ullman, meanwhile, quickly developed the part of Candice Valentine, a bitchy and manipulative It Girl who associated with the rich, powerful and glamorous, yet was still not above committing acts of petty theft against her flatmates. Rounding off the main cast was veteran actress Joan Greenwood as Lady Carlton, an eccentric romantic novelist who doubled-up, arguably not entirely to her own awareness, as the girls’ landlady.
Perhaps inevitably, much of the humour in Girls On Top revolves around the massive clash of personalities between the equally voluble and volatile Shelley and Amanda, with Jennifer playing less of a part in the dialogue but indulged with extended physical comedy sequences based on her immense lack of intellect and self-awareness. However, it is Candice who really steals the show, not least on account of her often lengthy ‘solo’ sequences taking place in a surreal, dreamlike world of glamorous discos and exclusive nightclubs, where it is never entirely clear to the viewer whether or not this is all simply taking place inside her head. The scripts for the first series were primarily written by French, Saunders and Wax, with Ullman contributing additional material and Ben Elton acting as script editor.
Introduced by a stylish theme song performed by the cast and written by Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook of Squeeze, Girls On Top finally found its way onto ITV when the first run of seven episodes appeared in an 8.30pm Wednesday timeslot from 23rd October 1985. Storylines included Candice’s attempts to hoodwink Shelley into appearing in an ‘adult’ film, Jennifer being kidnapped and held to ransom, Amanda’s pathetic attempt at staging a multi-cultural street festival, the disappearance of Lady Carlton’s stuffed dog, and more attempts at dodging rent payments than the combined cast could have counted on their collective fingers. Among those making guest appearances were Helen Atkinson-Wood, Helen Lederer, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Mark Arden, Stephen Frost, Simon Brint, Roland Rivron and – in a fantastic semi-regular turn as Amanda’s jumpsuited feminist activist co-conspirator – Harriet Thorpe.
Despite the inevitable limitations of its timeslot and prominence – although the writers did their best to find increasingly subtle ways around this – Girls On Top was an instant and deserved hit with both the regular sitcom audience and fans of the alternative scene alike. Its brashness and vulgarity were neatly balanced by the air of surrealism and the traditional bright lights and studio audience sitcom setup. Some observers have maintained the series was simply a carbon copy of The Young Ones, and superficially this criticism would appear to hold some weight. The basic setting is the same, and even the characters themselves are not that dissimilar – Amanda and Rik are certainly very close contemporaries, with Shelley effectively taking the place of Vyvyan, Jennifer as Neil and Candice as Mike. However, it is true that at least three of the characters were simply extensions of what their respective performers had been doing on stage for several years beforehand, and even taking usual television production practices into account, the idea of someone intentionally commissioning a series which was at that point barely more than a cult hit and literally only a couple of months old does stretch credibility somewhat.
What is perhaps most surprising about Girls On Top in retrospect was how much they were able to get away with in a prominent pre-watershed timeslot. While there is no actual swearing, there is a fair amount of what would be generally deemed ‘bad’ language, and a good deal of explicit sexual references, many of which were arguably still shocking in the mid-eighties. Central did in fact have some worries about this, but the writers preferred to leave the ensuing arguments in the capable hands of Paul Jackson, who was well experienced in negotiating with more conservative contemporaries. In any case, on some occasions Central seemed to be making a fuss over absolutely nothing, and Wax has often wearily recalled being informed of concerns that the utterly fictional Irma La Douce might sue for defamation of character.
By the time the first run of Girls On Top was being transmitted, Tracey Ullman was already in talks with American television networks about the possibility of her own solo project. This would eventually result in the acclaimed The Tracey Ullman Show, a series of offbeat playlets – some possibly derived from the abandoned series mooted during the interruption to production of Girls On Top – that ran on Fox between 1987 and 1990, although its success has since been somewhat overshadowed by the fact that it also included the television debut of The Simpsons. These negotiations precluded the possibility of Ullman appearing in the second series of Girls On Top, recorded in the early summer of 1986, but rather than replace her, Wax, French and Saunders opted instead to write Candice out. Ullman was ultimately available to record a small amount of material for the first episode, but her absence would leave the second series sorely lacking when it finally appeared in October 1986.
Candice had of course originally been added to the show to create a stronger dynamic between the other three leads, and her absence had an inevitable effect on the quality of Girls On Top. The main problem with the new batch of six episodes, which commenced on 30th October in the same timeslot, was not simply that they missed Candice and her glitzy fantasy world, but that the other characters had also been noticeably reshaped to compensate for her absence. This inevitably did not prove to be a successful move; Shelley’s brashness and confidence were noticeably toned down, Amanda was revealed to be unexpectedly weak-willed and easily manipulated by men, and most jarringly of all Jennifer became something of a scheming bitch, siding with whichever of the others she stood to gain the most from. This resulted in a muddled dynamic with less inspired interplay between the flatmates, and sadly as a consequence was just not as funny.
In fairness, and as Dawn French hinted at when interviewed for Roger Wilmut’s history of Alternative Comedy Didn’t You Kill My Mother-In-Law?, there may just not have been as much spare time and energy to spend working on six new scripts of Girls On Top. They entered production unexpectedly soon after the first batch, presumably in a bid to capitalise on the show’s success, and the three leads had already planned to use this time working on other projects. Wax was engaged on a number of other writing assignments, while French and Saunders – the latter of whom was also pregnant during this time – were hard at work both on Ben Elton’s BBC sitcom Happy Families (also produced by Paul Jackson) and their The Comic Strip Presents… film Consuela. Ultimately, however, the second series was a massive comedown after the offbeat vulgar charm of the first. This is not to say it does not have its moments. The first episode, in which Amanda and Shelley are both accused of murdering Candice by assisting one of her ‘mystery’ illnesses – in reality she had run away to marry a rich nobleman, suggesting her apparent delusions may have been truthful after all – is well up to standard, while others featured entertaining guest appearances by Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Hugh Laurie, and Katherine Helmond as Shelley’s mother, but as a whole it failed to work as well as the first run had done. Even the theme song, remixed to remove Ullman’s vocals, seemed a pale shadow of its former self. On a brighter note, the second run did come accompanied by the only item of Girls On Top merchandise – a tie-in paperback, written by the cast and published by HarperCollins, which was every bit as brash, vulgar and indeed amusing as the first set of episodes.
With the final episode featuring the main characters apparently killed in an explosion – yet another unintentional but widely-derided echo of The Young Ones – Girls On Top made its final appearance on 11th December 1986. Despite never giving an inch in terms of the strength of its content, the success of the show in its unlikely timeslot did much to make this new strain of comedy acceptable in the eyes of the wider viewing public. It also acted as a springboard for the cast to find their way into similar areas. However, this success did not extend to all parties involved – early the following year, Central attempted to fill the gap that Girls On Top had left in their output with the similarly conceived Hardwicke House, which was rapidly pulled after only two episodes had been broadcast.
Sadly, and perhaps on account of the lacklustre second series, Girls On Top is now regarded as one of the lesser achievements of the ‘alternative’ comedy boom. But at least initially it was a sterling effort and deserves slightly more respect than its reputation might suggest. Yet arguably the biggest laugh of the entire series was that, having been shunned by television virtually outright for so long, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders beat their contemporaries into the mainstream schedules by some considerable distance.
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You can read more about Girls On Top‘s even more controversial replacement Hardwicke House in my book Well At Least It’s Free, a collection of columns and features. Well At Least It’s Free is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Roger Wilmut’s history of Alternative Comedy Didn’t You Kill My Mother-In-Law? – which includes a large section on Girls On Top – was one of the books that had the most significant influence on me as a writer; you can read more about that and several other similarly influential books, magazines and sleevenotes here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.